Beware: The benevolence of the Zimbabwean military is most likely fake

21 Nov 2017

Military coups and military regimes tend to arise when the narrow political interests of generals and connected oligarchs appear to be under threat. This is the case in Zimbabwe.

By: Ongama Mtika

Some Zimbabweans have expressed praise for the military takeover of government by army generals in the second week of November. As far as they are concerned, Robert Mugabe needed to be toppled and a new political dispensation ushered in swiftly. The coup, or call it what you may, had signs of popular support although not in the fashion of the popular coups of the Arab Spring in recent years.

Undoubtedly, Zimbabweans were not alone in their positive feelings about the political developments in the country. It had become a kleptocratic state under Mugabe. Much human suffering and violations of human rights had been seen and the country had faced perpetual multi-faceted crises for the most part in the latter years of Mugabe’s reign. These had resulted in humanitarian suffering of catastrophic proportions, with millions of people fleeing to neighbouring countries.

The massive displacement of multitudes of Zimbabweans had been felt in Southern Africa, more so in developing South Africa. It underscored the extent of the crisis in the country and its consequences for ordinary Zimbabweans and the countries’ neighbours.

The temptation to see the toppling of Mugabe in a good light in this case might be very strong, both at home and abroad. In a way, while outrageous by the standards of the 21st century, audacious, and condemnable as a matter of principle, the military “intervention” appeared to have popular local and international support.

Zimbabwe may set a precedence in the continent

The question as to when is it legitimate to resort to undemocratic means to pursue political objectives in a democratic country arises. As a matter of fact, Zimbabwe ticked the right boxes when its democracy was measured on minimalist procedural grounds. There had been periodic elections in which various political parties contested, international observer missions, and the country had a written constitution.

However, there had been allegations of vote rigging, intimidation of political opponents, and killings of ordinary citizens and hostile constituents in Zimbabwe which served to undermine its claims to democracy. The electoral commission in the country was said to be extremely compromised with a voters’ roll that was apparently not credibility. The scandal of deceased people’s names being on the voters’ roll in the last election was a case in point.

Mugabe and his party had seemingly been presiding over a kleptocratic and neopatrimonial state, with the ruling elites and their patrons in a gravy train while the majority of the population was plunged into poverty.

If the allegations of poorly managed elections were true, the outcomes of these supposedly democratic procedures faced key legitimacy challenges. The extent to which Zimbabwe was a democracy then is highly questionable. On these grounds, the military intervention might be justly construed in a good light.

Is the Zimbabwean military a sudden defender of democracy?

Notwithstanding claims made by the Zimbabwean military that theirs is simply “pacifying” Harare, their true motives might not be that noble. Military coups and military regimes tend to arise when the narrow political interests of generals and connected oligarchs appear to be under threat.

Likewise, the military appear to be defending their threatened position in Zimbabwe. Indeed, indications were that Mugabe wanted to turn somewhat democratic Zimbabwe into a family dynasty with his wife succeeding him as president instead of his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa.

That the military was accused of committing human rights violations at the height of the land grabs programme and during crucial election times is telling. The army generals did not find their voice with the peace loving pro-change forces in Zimbabwe back then. But when they faced a direct threat in the neopatrimonial value chain with the firing of Mnangagwa, they acted swiftly to retain mainly their access to the commanding heights of the country, not constitutionalism and good governance per se.

Common enemy unites but for a while

Notwithstanding the unclear motives of the military, the people of Zimbabwe have gotten into a galvanising situation in which they and a senior faction within ZANU-PF suddenly have a common enemy in Mugabe. That it is their shared pursuit of the same opponent and possibly not shared motives to truly change the country is bad but catalytic enough for some change.

The trajectory of that change may well be the continuing of the status quo or the beginning of a process towards restoring the dignity of Zimbabwe and its democracy. It will not fall from the sky even in this instance, it will be determined by the extent to which Zimbabwean people exert themselves in the process. Hope in some military generals flirting with benevolence might be dissappointing.

Ongama Mtimka is a political analyst, senior researcher, lecturer, and PhD candidate at Nelson Mandela University’s Department of Political & Conflict Studies in South Africa. He writes on his personal capacity.

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